In and around Washington, we’re blessed with diverse options for outdoor activities within a two-hour drive. Camping on the beach? Head to Assateague Island National Seashore. Hiking in the mountains? Drive southwest to Old Rag Mountain. Exploring caves? Luray is a clear choice. Scenic biking? Rock Creek Park offers miles of pavement.
But what happens when the popular destinations get a little too popular? If you’re looking for something new, or want to avoid the inevitable crowds, we’ve discovered some alternatives — less well-known options inspired by the go-to spots.
Have you ever headed toward the Eastern Shore with thoughts of pitching a tent on the sand, falling asleep to the sound of the waves crashing ashore and spotting wild horses only to find . . . Assateague Island National Seashore and the nearby state park are booked? Patches of the popular stretch of sand are reserved months in advance, meaning chances are minuscule that you can just drop in.
But don’t resign yourself to a chain hotel in Ocean City just yet. On the other side of the Chincoteague Bay in Maryland is Pocomoke River State Park, and it’s only 30 minutes beyond Assateague. There may not be a beach, but this secluded oasis can satisfy your desire for an outdoorsy, rustic getaway and serve as an inexpensive launching point for trips to Chincoteague, Ocean City and, of course, Assateague.
The park is divided in two: the Milburn Landing Area and the Shad Landing Area. If seclusion is what you seek, head for Milburn Landing, which offers cabins and 32 tent sites and little else but woods.
Shad Landing is easily the more popular of the two areas, and camping is permitted year-round. It’s anchored by a two-story camp store that, in addition to being an air-conditioned haven, offers staples, pizza and a plethora of Hershey’s Ice Cream flavors. The store overlooks Corker’s Creek, a boat dock and pier. Not far off, trails and roads wind through the woods leading to 175 campsites, a public swimming pool and a small stocked pond.
Be sure to rent a kayak for the two-mile trip along Corker’s Creek and the Pocomoke River. Pure heaven is hanging your feet over the side of the kayak on a warm day and enjoying the cool water on your toes. This ecologically fascinating paddle runs by a bald cypress swamp — no creepy swamp creatures here, just a diverse ecosystem to explore.
Paddling not your thing? Take an easy 0.7-mile walk along the Trail of Change, which winds through a grove of loblolly pines before descending into a cooler bald cypress swamp and a tunnel of mountain laurel bushes. Along the way, 11 markers note areas of historical and natural interest. Be sure to keep an eye out for frogs, snakes and migratory birds.
The park’s nature center, which offers activities several times a week, is also worth checking out. Snakes and turtles call the center home, and displays on ecology and the environment cover the walls.
For a cool way to end a strenuous day, head to the pool for a dip (swimming isn’t allowed in Corker’s Creek). The fee is $3 for campers, and lifeguards are on duty. The pool closes on Labor Day.
Pocomoke River State Park
Milburn Landing Area, 3036 Nassawango Rd., Pocomoke City.
Shad Landing Area, 3461 Worcester Hwy., Snow Hill. 410-632-2566. www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/pocomokeriver.asp. Tent site prices range from $20 to $35 per night.
Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park is famous for a few things. Sure, there are the rock scrambles and breathtaking views. But the hoards of hikers on the trail nine months out of the year are also part of the picture.
With that in mind, we offer you a hike to the Devils Racecourse along the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. The trek boasts lovely views, fewer people and a river of rocks.
Parking and trail heads are at Pen Mar Park along the Mason-Dixon Line and farther south at High Rock in Maryland, where a hike of about 4.5 miles begins. (If you prefer a longer route, like that at Old Rag, park at Pen Mar and hike south three miles along the Appalachian Trail to High Rock.)
The aptly named overlook at High Rock is at an elevation of 1,900 feet. It’s a popular spot for hang gliders and nature lovers, with panoramic views of the lush green valley and miles of farmland.
To proceed to the Devils Racecourse, look for the blue-blazed trail that begins on the edge of the surrounding woods and links up with the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Take the AT south as it winds 1.7 miles through thick forests with minimal ascents and descents.
The Devils Racecourse remains a well-kept secret, mainly because there’s no sign for it on the AT. To find your way, be on the lookout for another blue-blazed trail indicating a spring three-tenths of a mile down a rocky slope. Follow the blue trail until you see the gurgling spring crossing the path. Not far beyond that is a shelter, picnic table and fire ring. After a couple of miles hiking, this is a comfortable place to sit, loosen your boot laces and have a snack or lunch.
The eerie Devils Racecourse is within sight of the shelter. The origin of its name remains a mystery, but some say the river of rocks that looks to be more than 100 feet wide and about half a mile long was the Devil’s attempt to create an impossible race course. A more scientific explanation has to do with extreme freezes and frosts millions of years ago. Either way, the result is a large, open area void of vegetation that will send a shiver up your spine. Stand quietly on one of the boulders and you can hear water trickling underneath.
When you’re through exploring (or are adequately spooked), hike back to the Appalachian Trail and follow it north toward High Rock or Pen Mar Park.
Directions to Pen Mar Park and High Rock from Washington: Take I-270 north past Frederick to Maryland 15 north. Take MD 550 west and make a left onto Pen Mar Road. The road passes the park and runs all the way to High Rock. www.appalachiantrail.org.
If you’ve ever driven west on Interstate 66, you are probably familiar with the yellow-and-green billboards for Luray Caverns. Arguably the most well-known cave in the area, the caverns boast fried eggs, a stalacpipe organ and countless mammoth columns. But it certainly isn’t the only cave in Virginia worth visiting.
Skyline Caverns in Front Royal might be less well known than its famous neighbor, but it’s a bit closer to Washington, less expensive and boasts plenty of beautiful, rare formations.
The tour begins near where retired geologist Walter Amos discovered the opening of the cave in 1937. A path winds through its upper level, which is about 260 feet underground. Skyline’s highlights are anthodites, which also go by the nickname “orchids of the mineral kingdom.” The spikey, crystallike formations are quite rare, and, according to assistant to the manager Allison Chapman, Skyline’s anthodites are the only ones in the United States on public view.
Many other formations in the cave were caused by water erosion over the past 50 million to 60 million years and have their own breathtaking beauty. With a little imagination and good lighting, stalactites, stalagmites and columns resemble a nativity, the Capitol dome and even an eagle.
There are moments when you should watch your step. Hit your head on a low-hanging bolder and you’ve been given a cave kick. Catch a drop of water falling from the ceiling formations and you’ve been given a cave kiss.
At one point during a recent tour, the guide shut off all the lights, allowing visitors to experience total darkness. It was a thrilling feeling and only added to the sense of adventure. And while Luray might have an organ, Skyline’s music is visitor-powered. With a slap of your hand, the hollow formation emits a deep vibrating sound.
Skyline Caverns, 10344 Stonewall Jackson Hwy., Front Royal. 800-296-4545. 540-635-4545. www.skylinecaverns.com. $16, $8 ages 7 to 13, younger free.
On any given weekend, you’ll encounter countless cyclists in Rock Creek Park. From little ones on tricycles to weekend warriors on racing bikes, hundreds of people take to the wide, wooded trail in search of scenic exercise.
But not too far away, there’s another option, and one that’s less crowded. The Baltimore & Annapolis Trail, a former rail bed that stretches 13.3 miles from Annapolis to Glen Burnie, is similar to Rock Creek in that it is well maintained, has interesting historic features and goes from rural to urban in a short time.
The official start of the trail is in Annapolis, about two miles from Jonas Green Park. But before getting on your bike, you’ll want to stop at the park, at the base of the Naval Academy Bridge, to grab a trail map and reference guide to historic markers (you can also pick them up at the ranger station in Severna Park). Then either pedal the miles on the busy Route 450 bicycle lane to the trail’s starting point or hop back in your car and drive north to the South Lot parking area near the intersection of routes 450 and 50.
As you pedal, the trail transitions through thick woods and horse farms to suburbs. Take note of markers highlighting where rail stations once stood and how small communities have blossomed into towns. Farther on, near the B&A Trail Park ranger station in Severna Park, the ride passes a representation of the solar system, beginning with a sculpture of Pluto and signs for each planet and ending 4.6 miles later with a sculpture of the sun.
You know you’re reaching the trail’s end and the urban area of Glen Burnie as the planes coming in for a landing at the nearby Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport buzz over your head.
If you have time (not to mention energy), consider continuing on the BWI Trail loop, which will add 12.5 miles to your trip.
Jonas Green Park, 1990 Governor Ritchie Hwy., Annapolis. 410-222-8820. www.aacounty.org/RecParks/launch/jonasgreen.cfm.
Baltimore & Annapolis Trail Park ranger station, 51 W. Earleigh Heights Rd., Severna Park. 410-222-6244. www.aacounty.org/RecParks/parks/trails/bandatrailpark.cfm .